While I write a lot about higher education, I’ve always tried to avoid college admissions as a topic. The large majority of college students attend schools that have either open or relatively non-selective admissions policies. Yet media coverage of higher education obsessively focuses on the selective admissions rat race among a small percentage of very privileged young men and women whose parents are, not coincidentally, possessing of disposable income and the inclination to pay actual money for newspapers and magazines. These students are also least affected by public policy—regardless of what happens with Pell grants, students loans, for-profit colleges, and accountability for graduation rates, they’ll be fine. We give the most attention to college students who need it least. I didn’t want to be part of the problem.
At the same time, I’m very interested in how information technology changes systems. During my adult lifetime, vast important activities have been converted from paper-based to electronic form. This process always proceeds in steps: First, we do things the way we always did them, but faster and cheaper. Second, someone figures out how to do things in a whole new way, disrupting existing assumptions, arrangements, and balances of power. This has become such a common part of modern life, it’s easy to forget that the process of conversion and disruption is by no means complete. It’s going on all around us and many of the disruptive effects have yet to be felt.
That’s why I wrote a new article, modestly titled “The End of College Admissions As We Know It,” in Washington Monthly. Here’s the gist: College admissions is a market that to this day substantially involves the exchange of information via pieces of paper (or electronic images thereof.) This causes all kinds of largely unrecognized problems. While nobody wants to admit this, there’s a lot of unavoidable error—every year, some unknown but likely substantial number of students get rejected by their college of choice because the wrong piece of paper got put in the wrong file. It’s vulnerable to fraud—remember Adam Wheeler, the guy who faked his way into Harvard? That only happened because—in 2007, mind you—he was able to submit fabricated transcripts, recommendations, and test scores on paper.
And worst of all, it’s inefficient. Electronic markets are better than paper-based markets at distributing information and matching buyers and sellers. Right now, this inefficiency benefits well-off students who have the financial and social capital to work the admissions system. And it hurts students who don’t have those things. But, as the article describes, the college admissions market is in the midst of the inevitable transition to electronic form. When that happens, I think it will fundamentally change the way students and institutions are matched to one another. And as such, it will be a lot harder to work the system. If you thought it was difficult to get your kid into Harvard now—well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.